Zacharia Baumel:Missing from the Conscience of a Nation
interview with Yonah and Miriam Baumel,
parents of Israeli MIA, Zacharia Baumel.
Arno Weinstein and Yisrael Fuchs
to internet posting of this article:
November 17, 2002 marked Zacharia Baumel's 42nd birthday.
It is therefore incumbant upon us at B'tzedek
to post an article previously published in B'tzedek's
printed journal. It should be noted that Zacharia Baumel,
holds both US and Israeli citizenship. He was captured
in the Battle of Sultan Yaqub in 1982 and remains missing
in action. The following is the article published in
1996. Unfortunatly, very little has changed.
June 17, 1982, Zacharia Baumel, a soldier in an Israeli tank unit
has been missing in action. The following interview with his parents,
Yonah and Miriam Baumel, is a testimony to the apathy and disorder
the issue of Israel's MIA's has received. This interview was conducted
on September 4, 1995.
What is your understanding of the current status of your son's
Miriam Baumel: Well,
we have a letter from Rabin . . . what it says basically [is]
that they don't know. That there has been positive information
and negative information as to their being alive. Depending on
who you talk to in the Army and who believes what. We are in a
position that we just don't know. We keep on getting information.
We don't know exactly how many and who [are alive]. We do know
. . . we won't say. The information keeps coming through that
these boys are alive and being held in Syrian controlled territory.
Is that the official position of the government?
Miriam Baumel: No, it's
Yonah Baumel: The official
position is that they do not know. The unofficial position in
the Army is that they think that the boys are dead. We keep getting
information [that some of] them are alive. We are at a standoff
- we can't prove it, they can't prove it.
Miriam Baumel: The question
is: What is the activity for those . . . do they consider them
alive or do they consider them dead? This is the problem. It's
always been that way and we feel that [an] effort needs to be
made for all [of the MIA's] until information comes through and
there is proof [of their status]. That's the way we sit with it.
And we have to live like this all the time because we just don't
There was a Jordanian reporter, Haroun Mahamid, who passed on
information about your son and your son's army dog-tag while visiting
a PLO prison in Lebanon?
Miriam Baumel: This Jordanian
reporter who we knew about before, talked about having seen our
son in captivity passed the time when the Army claimed that they
could have been dead, you know what I mean . . . and that takes
us over a hurdle of a certain time because some people in the
Army say they were killed in the field of battle . . . finished.
You have how many were killed in the Lebanon War, five-hundred,
six-hundred? So you add on a few more. And that's the end of that
story. [The Army] decided that he [the reporter] is not reliable
and his information is not reliable. But the problem is, when
they talk about bodies [dead soldiers] the same [sort of] people
in the PLO are reliable. Their sources are reliable, so I feel
that it is very unfair because if you refute one [source] you
have to refute them all. Now, the dog-tag was returned in '93
. . . at the end of '93. December '93. Arafat gave it over to
a representative of Rabin. Half the dog-tag. We know that in '84
a wax impression of Zack's [Zacharia's] dog-tag was received here
in Israel by Aharon Barnea [an Israeli reporter] and the dog-tag
was intact. So, we claim that Arafat must have broken it when
he gave it over. There is no saying that Arafat doesn't have any
other dog-tags. If he has one, he may have others. He probably
has others. We always have operated on the premise that they are
alive - all those from [the battle of] Sultan Ya'acoub. That Arafat
has to give the information of where he secured the dog-tags and
where are the others [ is imperative].
Can you tell us the exact location where the Jordanian reporter
said that he saw your son?
Miriam Baumel: Lebanon.
An area under Syrian control. The problem is that when he had
first told about it, Yonah had gone to Jordan to view this reporter
. . .
Yonah Baumel: Well, he
was the head of the Hebrew language news of Jordan and in the
summer of '85 he announced over Jordanian television that Zachary
Baumel - and singled him out - was being held by the Palestinians
in the Bekaa Valley, in Balbek. About a year later, I went to
Jordan with an Israeli/American Lawyer under the exiguous of the
American Embassy there, along with Counsel officials, we spoke
to this journalist. The lawyer who came along, who is an expert
in cross examination, . . . he [the journalist] reiterated his
story how he saw Zach and how he had Zach's Pinkas Choger [Military
Rank Card] in his hand with a picture and he was able to make
positive identification when he saw Zach through a small opening
of a door [in the PLO prison]. The Army's reaction to that was
that a soldier does not go into battle with a Pinkas Choger but
rather with a Pinkas Shivuye [Prisoner of War Card]. The fact
of the matter is that a lot of soldiers go in [to battle] with
their Pinkas Choger instead of their Pinkas Shivuye, . . . .
Miriam Baumel: He was
called in [to the army] from the Yeshiva . . .
Yonah Baumel: Zach was
in Hesder [combined military service and yeshiva study program],
just at the end of the Yeshiva part of Hesder he was registered
and going on to college after that. We never found his pinkas
choger either in the stuff that the Yeshiva returned to us or
here [at home]. Which negatively . . . if it were found we would
be able to let go of the story. It doesn't prove that . . . it
proves that at least it isn't wrong [the account of the Jordanian
When was the last time that you heard from non-governmental of
sources regarding your son's whereabouts?
Yonah Baumel: May of
Yonah Baumel: That is
It would seem that the dog-tag is not just some disjointed piece
of material, but rather, it must eventually lead a trail to your
Miriam Baumel: The information
that we have is that Arafat's group had control of these particular
prisoners. We had spoken to a reporter who we haven't succeeded
in finding, who told this particular lawyer, who Yonah had traveled
with when he was in [Jordan], he told him that he was invited
by a PLO person to interview Israeli prisoners in August of '82.
He was an American reporter for one of the magazines.
Yonah Baumel: He's a
Miriam Baumel: I have
his name but I have been unable to find him. He said that he was
invited by this PLO person to interview the prisoners. When he
got there with the camera crew the people who were guarding them
said that [he could] not let anyone in to see our prisoners, so
this, in effect, shows the beginning change of charge of these
particular prisoners. So, we know from this Arab [Jordanian] reporter
that they [Israeli MIA's] changed hands. Syrian-Palestinians took
control of these particular prisoners and the dog-tags remained
with Arafat. So we know this, but we don't want to put the words
into Arafat's mouth. We want Arafat to give the information. We
also know that when the wax impression was received that the dog-tags
were being held in a safe.
Yonah Baumel: The dog-tag
was held by Abu-Jihad. When he was killed there was a fight between
Arafat and Um-Jihad as to the proprietorship [of] the contents
of this safe. And eventually Arafat gained control. We have friends
in the PLO at various positions. So our penetration of the PLO
is fairly good and so we know what goes on there - not perfect,
and that doesn't mean that it's always correct - but fairly good,
fairly accurate reports. The reason that we are able to press
the Prime Minister [Rabin] to get the dog-tag back, is because
we knew exactly where it was. And we told him that it was inconceivable
now that you are meeting with Arafat at least you can get the
Why did the prisoners change hands?
Miriam Baumel: If you
recall, at a certain point Arafat had his back to the wall [in
Beirut], then he released the six [prisoners] that he was holding.
There were two that were held by Jabril and Jabril never admitted
to holding Hezi Shai who was the commander of Zach's tank, until
he was pressured very hard because they had information that Jabril
had Hezi Shai. When they had the exchange the following year with
Syria, when Hezi Shai came back with the two Nachal soldiers.
Originally there were eight Nachal soldiers that were being held
by Arafat. Two of them were given over to Jabril.
Yonah Baumel: It was
like a sales tax.
Miriam Baumel: And everybody
used them as pawns.
Yonah Baumel: According
to the information that we received the group that controlled
the MIA's, which was loyal to Arafat, defected to Syria in the
early part of 1983 taking with them the MIA's. All of the MIA's
that were alive.
Where do you suspect the MIA's are being held today?
Yonah Baumel: In the
Bekaa Valley. This information goes back several years. Held by
Lebanese. More moderate Lebanese who are in the employ of the
With the dog-tag, the impressions, all the information which has
been amassed over the past thirteen years, how have we come closer
to your son and the other MIA's?
Yonah Baumel: We have
What is being done with it?
Yonah Baumel: We are
receiving information in '94, in '93, in '92. Historically, the
Syrians have kept Israeli soldiers incommunicado for up to sixteen-years.
There is the case of Reuben Libis, in which the Syrians continued
to deny they were holding him until one day they said that: there
was something that we want and we are ready to make an exchange.
Miriam Baumel: Our problem
is . . . well, we have requested that the Palestinian prisoner
release be linked to the release of the MIA's and this they have
refused to do . . . the government - everybody there. It would
impede their peace plan.
Yonah Baumel: The basic
problem is [that] the Left won't help us because they feel that
it would impede the peace process. And the Right won't help us
because they feel that it would facilitate the peace process.
I mean that this is a simple explanation. There are people on
the left that would help us and people on the right, but in general
. . .
Miriam Baumel: There
is no one party that would say that they are behind us. We have
approached Natanyahu and we have approached [everybody] else.
There has been no official willingness to back the MIA's. Maybe
if they could on an individual basis, if we ask something specific.
And even then . . . .
Yonah Baumel: The best
friend of the MIA's in the Knesset is Gandhi [Rachavam Ze'evi].
He is the only one who will consistently go to bat. The NRP [National
Religious Party] will say pious things . . . good, but not enough.
The Likud - here and there are people who do, but as a party they
keep away from it. Labor follows the line of the government. Meretz
- there is nothing to speak of . . ."
Miriam Baumel: . . .
Agudah [Agudat Yisrael], the same thing. We've been in and out
of the Knesset.
You have said what is NOT being done. So, what IS being done?
Yonah Baumel: I'll tell
you something, if we are going back historically in time, on July
4, 1982, the Syrians and Assiaka, which is a Syrian-Palestinian
group, had a big show-funeral in the Jewish cemetery in Damascus
where ostensibly they buried the bodies of four Israeli soldiers.
The names that were given and the pinkasim [documents] that were
put on the graves - pinkas choger that they found - did not match
Miriam Baumel: They were
of soldiers who had returned home safely to Israel . . .
Yonah Baumel: . . . but
had left their effects in the field of battle. The Israeli's figured
that the Syrians don't lie on things like this, they are trouble-makers,
they may have not gotten the names right, but if they said that
they buried Israeli soldiers - they buried Israeli soldiers. They
told the parents that they were hunting while the trail was hot.
They weren't. Today they admit their mistake. On Yom Kippur of
1983, the graves were exhumed by the Red Cross and it was found
that it was one Israeli soldier - one of the MIA's - and three
Arabs buried there. By then, the trail was cold. You have to understand
something - we've learned a great deal about intelligence work.
Now, when there's flux, when there is war, it is comparatively
easy to enter enemy territory because there's a lot of refugees,
a lot of movement, a lot of strangers. When things settle down,
the stranger is suspect. When we had a Christian clergyman, who
we won't identify any further, who used to visit Lebanon regularly,
as many Christian clergymen do, he brought back information that
Zach was alive. He said one of the others is alive also. We sent
him back to bring more information and they sent him back telling
him that if he comes again he is not going to leave there alive.
During the war, or near the post-war, you can get people that
got into the villages.
Miriam Baumel: They tell
us that they are doing everything - those are their words. We
talk to the people in the Army and they are not specific. And
we've gotten, because of our disappointment, we've gotten very
skeptical of what they are doing. You don't feel that they are
really doing much of anything and that they are paused and that
they expect that when peace comes with Syria this matter will
be settled. Not necessarily before, because they won't impede
anything [the peace process] for the sake of the soldiers. It's
very sad to say. So we go out and try to make our own contacts.
Yonah is in contact with the Arab world and I try to get foreign
elements to assist us in pressing the governments that can give
us the information. Including, pressing the United States because
any country that gives money to Arafat, in essence, is ignoring
the fact that their are MIA's and information that he [Arafat]
hasn't given us. So, this is very upsetting and this, in consequence,
interferes with what this government wants - the loans to be given.
And that is why the Foreign Ministry and we are in a collision
But Arafat you say, is no longer in control of the MIA's?
Miriam Baumel: What I
am saying is the information that he gives would also settle [the
matter for] those who say that they died - if he gives us information.
Not just speaking about vacant graves all the time, which is what
they want to believe here, but no proof has been forthcoming.
We are just as interested in finding proof that they are dead
. . . but this limbo that we are living in . . . .
Perhaps much more should be done on behalf of your son and the
rest of the MIA's? Do you believe that the Israeli government
is sweeping aside the issue of the MIA's in order to facilitate
their own agenda?
Miriam Baumel: That's
right. We had a hunger strike at that time when we didn't want
anything [regarding the Oslo agreement] to be done, anything finalized
until this matter was settled, and they refused. That's very discouraging.
Fine words from every politician - it didn't matter what his nationality
- politicians know how to throw words in order to get the people
to get off their backs. I don't want to believe words anymore,
I want action.
It seems ironic that Israel, world famous for its intelligence
services, that is, the Mossad and their abilities in international
intrigue . . .
Miriam Baumel: It's not
the same today. The motivation is different completely.
One would think that this would be a priority for the intelligence
Miriam Baumel: But the
morals of Israel today are . . . just not the same as they used
Are you saying that the MIA's are not a high priority for the
Miriam Baumel: Certainly.
We are very low on the priorities list.
In October of 1985 the Russians were the targets of Arab terrorism
in Lebanon. The incident occurred when Soviet attaches in Beirut
were abducted. The Russians acted swiftly and kidnapped members
of the terrorists' families. The terrorists received body parts
of their loved ones and within weeks relented.
Yonah Baumel: I'm quite
sure that there probably is no other country in the world except
Russia, with their system, who do as much as Israel has done [for
their MIA's]. Certainly the Americans in Viet Nam did far less.
Miriam Baumel: But on
the other hand the Americans learned a lesson and in the Gulf
War [the Americans] refused to leave Iraq until all the MIA's
were accounted for.
Yonah Baumel: They refused
a cease-fire. The Iraqis said they don't know [about the MIA's]
and the Americans said they were not going to agree to a cease-fire
and suddenly all the American MIA's tuned up. There wasn't a single
[soldier] unaccounted for . . .
Miriam Baumel: That's
what we claim with the prisoners. Because if they would press
with the prisoners then the families of these prisoners, and also
those that are interested in having them released, would certainly
be on our side [insisting] that the information be released.
Yonah Baumel: The idea
is this - they have done a hell of a lot. The amount of support
that they have given the families to go out on their own and .
. . is tremendous . . . on the other hand, when push came to shove
they were not willing to do what we considered basic because they
felt that it was going to interfere with the peace process.
You say that 'they have done a hell of a lot', yet, when it really
means something it seems that they won't take that step . . .
Miriam Baumel: That's
exactly it. That's exactly it.
Yonah Baumel: Up to a
Miriam Baumel: What we
consider the primary purpose is to get them back home.
Yonah Baumel: We have
received information, some more specific, some less specific,
that some of the boys are alive. And we have gotten remarkably
similar information from many sources.
Miriam Baumel: Nabi Berri
claimed that he had three Israeli soldiers by name. He named the
three missing from Sultan Ya'acoub and the Army told us that they
were ninety-nine percent sure that it wasn't ours. So what we
said was that ninety-nine percent is not enough, we wanted one
hundred percent and we had them [the bodies] exhumed. We had to
pay a price each time. You pay a price for every little bit. So
withholding information gets you someplace also.
Yonah Baumel: What happened
is that the Army refused. Berri's wife is an Arab-American and
he's the holder of a green-card. So he is a little more accessible.
So we told him - if you won't do it, we will. So, when he saw
that we were serious they decided that it would be better if they
did it. The bodies were exhumed - and they weren't [the MIA's]
they were SLA men. We don't believe that Arafat has bodies. We
say this: if he has bodies, or if he knows, has access to bodies,
and they're our sons - at least it will end our doubt . . . .
If they aren't, this gives more credence to our scenario.
What has to be done is [that] sufficient pressure has to be put
on Arafat to point the finger where these bodies are. The other
thing is to try to put enough pressure on the government here,
which we have been unsuccessful at. It's a great country but .
. . look . . . the [number] 26 bus blew-up in Jerusalem. For two
days it was a horror. After that, it is as if life goes on as
usual. The people are indifferent.
So what is it that you do in order to move the government?
Miriam Baumel: We plague
them. We visit them, we make meetings, we yell.
Yonah Baumel: We do our
own thing. We have been on somewhat of a collision course because
as unlikely as we appear, we have a good intelligence network.
Sometimes we may dig up an agent in the field who they have not
activated. One of their own - I don't know if you are that familiar
with the way the Israeli intelligence works world-wide operates,
this is no place to give a lecture on it - but there are a lot
of stringers and in some cases we have activated them and with
startling and embarrassing results.
Miriam Baumel: Over the
past half a year Rabin, if he wanted something, he would order
closures or something when it was important to them. But on this
matter they won't do it.
Yonah Baumel: The big
culprit, by the way, is more Peres than Rabin. He [Rabin] has
been more cooperative than Peres. The basic thing that we are
demanding now is this - every time there is a meeting between
Arafat and Peres or Rabin or their negotiating teams, the first
thing Arafat issues in his communication is the demand of the
return of the [Arab terrorist] prisoners we want the Israeli government
to make a public demand that Arafat divulge where the MIA's are
being held, all the facts that he knows about it. Now their are
things that we are not at liberty to go into here but we know
that he knows and the government knows that he knows - in fact,
Rabin said that he thinks that he [Arafat] knows. Peres says,
whatever he [Arafat] says, he's willing to believe him. And Beilin
said that these boys are expendable so . . .
Miriam Baumel: Now, in
the Cairo agreement there is a sentence about Arafat divulging
[information about the MIA's]. The only thing is [that] whenever
they refer to the Oslo agreement . . . but they arranged the Oslo
meetings with the PLO on the pretext of working for the MIA's
and the MIA's were never mentioned.
Yonah Baumel: Peres admitted
that [at] first . . . there was a law preventing Israelis meeting
with PLO people. I was in Tunis in 1989, but Rabin said that the
MIA's were outside of the boundaries [of the law] and he supported
my trip. The original contacts with the PLO were made under the
pretext of discussing the MIA's when they were really discussing
the peace process. Peres admitted that they were cynical about
it and that they were using it as a pretext.